Saturday, December 18, 2010 |
Whenever the Canada Reads debates roll around, the topic of which book is the "most Canadian" always comes up. And why not? Canada Reads is a Canadian show asking Canadians to read a book by a Canadian selected by a panel of celebrated Canadians. Shouldn't we be selecting something that resonates with our collective cultural identity?
But what, exactly, does it mean for a book to be Canadian? Our literature is as broad in scope as our country is wide and as diverse as our population. Canadian writers have written about growing up in India and dystopian futures; they've covered topics from love to loss and everything in between. Is there any way to define what makes a book Canadian?
We asked this very question to our esteemed in-house defenders. What they had to say is below!
Look out, The Birth House. Look out, Unless.
The Best Laid Plans is, without a doubt, the most beaver-tailed, hockey-loving, maple syrup-drenched book of the bunch. Being quite serious here. TBLP and Canada go together like Bob and Doug McKenzie, like french fries and cheese curds, like Gordon Lightfoot and the key of G.
Want proof? I'll give you proof. The book is set in Ottawa, the town that rules us all. The prime minister makes an appearance. An Arctic air mass plays a major role. And in a poignant twist, two lovelorn characters do something extremely Canadian — they separate!
What's more, TBLP is the only novel of the five with a Canadian flag on the cover. And as if that wasn't enough, the phrase The Best Laid Plans is an anagram for "Libs Adapt the Lens." No way is that a coincidence! (Editor's note: It's also an anagram for "Satan Beds Hell Pit." Significant?)
Bring on the posers, TBLP is ready to rumble! We'll go tuque to tuque; brewski to brewski; we'll be the mighty Gretzky to your Marty McSorley.
Just as what makes Canada Canada, what makes a book Canadian depends on the person you're asking. Is it a distinct regional voice? If so, The Birth House has that in droves. But it's also a book that isn't just about one province and one town in rural Nova Scotia. It's a story about Canadian heritage and culture. It's a snapshot of a Canada in its infancy: where tradition meets modern invention, where we see our role in the First World War and the tragedy of a major historical event that was the Halifax Explosion.
We also get a close look at community, because first and foremost The Birth House is about people. Miss Babineau, the outspoken Acadian midwife who takes Dora Rare under her wing, is compelling as a character because she represents the past so well. She comes from a people who were expelled from the region and now her profession is threatened in the same way. It's a novel that theoretically could have taken place in many other parts of the country. McKay chose to set it in a place that inspired her creatively: her Canada — and mine too.
Consider: Canadians love the Olympics. (Check out all how many people are wearing those red mittens, eh!) According to the media consortium (CTV, Rogers, et. al.) with rights to the Vancouver games, coverage scored the top five most-watched events in Canadian television history and logged 251 million page-views online over the 16 days of competition. So a story about two athletes and their path to (potentially) the podium is sure to hit home with many readers across the country.
If there's one trait that's widely considered "Canadian," it's fairness — and the narrative of The Bone Cage is the epitome of gender equity, since it's split between male (wrestler) and female (swimmer) viewpoints.
Thematic elements with a Canuck flavour: "road trips, ski chalets, hot tubbing, beer drinking, all = Canadian mountain culture..." (thanks for pointing that out on Twitter, @ruthseeley).
And hey, don't we all love an underdog? The other books on this year's list have already won awards and accolades, and they've all got a major publisher behind them. The Bone Cage is published by a small press, and when it first came out a few years ago, it didn't get the national attention it truly deserves. How about showing some love for a quiet, unassuming novel with genuine heart?
That's Canadian to the core.
Jeff Lemire's Essex County may be based on a fictional county in Southwestern Ontario but it could take place in almost any part of Canada. Except for scenes in Toronto, the landscapes are vast, often lonely and quiet. Hockey plays a prominent role as the characters are players, has-been stars of the ice or enthusiastic fans. Lots of land, wintry scenes and hockey — for most Canadians, it doesn't get any more "Canadian" than that. Even though I'm a city girl who can barely skate and has never played a game of hockey, I still felt pride and connection to the characters of Essex County. I know the landscapes that Jeff has illustrated, but an overarching theme in the book is loneliness — in a land so big, it's hard to feel anything but alone. Ultimately, the book and its characters find love and help within their own communities. It's a reminder that despite how big Canada is, we can all find our own communities close to home. Hockey or not, it's something all Canadians can identify with.
All right, well, it may not have the Canadian flag on its cover, but the book is largely a dark shade of red with a kind of off-white border. And that's not the only element of it that reflects our national identity. Firstly, our protagonist, Reta Winters, lives in a smallish town in the rolling hills of Ontario, close to nature but only an hours drive from the big city. Her circle of friends is diverse and includes people who were born and raised in other countries and then immigrated to Canada. She is perfectly bilingual, having had a francophone Quebecoise mother and an anglophone Scottish father who allowed her to respond to them in whatever language she wanted (just like the Canada Post). When her daughter decides to move out on the street, she takes up kitty corner from a large department store. No, it's not Walmart. It's Honest Ed's, a Canadian icon. Additionally, and perhaps most aptly, the majority of this book takes place in winter. For goodness sake, the protagonist's last name is even Winters. And finally, this book was written by Carol Shields. CAROL SHIELDS.
I rest my case.
Which book is the most Canadian to you?